It’s easy to admire virtue and nobility. Possessing either can be difficult. Maybe that’s why our movies seem to feature five Norman Bates and ten Gordon Gekkos for every George Bailey or Atticus Finch. What a roster of film villains has evolved: Hannibal Lector, Nurse Ratched, Freddy Krueger, Noah Cross, Travis Bickle. Daniel Day-Lewis lengthened that list in 2002 as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Bill is tough, mean and extreme. This portrayal earned Day-Lewis an Academy Award-nomination and a place in the Hall of Movie Horribles. Now, he’s back with another villain of nightmare proportions — as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. That’s our Smackdown: Can this newcomer hold his own against an established monster in long pants, Bill the Butcher?
Daniel Plainview’s fortunes turn around when he strikes oil while mining silver in California at the end of the 19th century. Oil and the accumulation of land and power feed the hatred and greed that motivate his life. “I hate most people,” he says and means it. Plainview will do anything to serve his ends, even adopting a boy orphaned in a well field accident. Young H.W. is an effective, sympathetic prop Plainview uses to low-ball the locals out of their land, oil and mineral rights. He joins a local church congregation to gain an oil lease on a choice piece of farmland. It is here Plainview meets his nemesis, Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Preacher Sunday is avaricious and manipulative — but no match for the sheer madness that motivates Daniel Plainview. Other characters learn this volatile lesson. Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, Boogie Nights) directed a script he loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel, “Oil!.”
Desperation, squalor and gang-warfare dominate the Five Points section of lower Manhattan during the mid-19th century. This is not the sort of place where you look to the police for help. Often, the “crushers” answer to gang bosses like Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He controls this mess through violence and bloodshed. Lots of both. Bill runs the virulently anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Native Americans gang. Another gang, the Dead Rabbits, inhabits Five Points. These are Catholic Irish immigrants and a clash is both unavoidable and drenched in blood. The chief Rabbit Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) dies at the hands of Bill the Butcher and the Rabbits disband. Vallon’s young son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) flees the area, but returns after 15 years with revenge in mind. During the interim Bill tightens his grip and no longer kowtows to the likes of William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and the uptown families who control Manhattan. By now, Amsterdam has wormed his way into the Native Americans and becomes Bill’s assistant while regrouping the Dead Rabbits. They clash again, only to be interrupted by cannon fire during the Civil War Draft Riots. As before, their differences are settled in blood.
Daniel Plainview and Bill Cutting live at the far edge of the human continuum. Their methods may vary, but there is nothing either man will avoid to impose their will. Maiming, intimidation and death come with the territory. Both show human dimensions — although very rarely — and both are the marvelous creations of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Plainview and the Butcher operate within the broad sweep of epic story lines. Gangs of New York fictionalizes real events and several real people in a screenplay written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. Bill the Butcher is loosely based on butcher / barkeeper William Poole. Day-Lewis gives Bill a glass eye with an eagle in it and a ferocious persona that leaps from the screen. He’s so effective it dwarfs standout perfomances by DiCaprio, Neeson, Broadbent, John C. Reilly and Cameron Diaz. Not surprising, Gangs earned ten Academy Award nominations, while winning 33 other awards and compiling 59 nominations.
There Will Be Blood is piling up nominations and has earned 13 awards as I write this. Much of the acclaim centers on Day-Lewis and he’s given enough storyline to expose a heart of stone. His character is more identifiable to modern audiences and as such, Daniel Plainview seems like someone we could actually meet. On another level he can be interpreted as a walking commentary on capitalism on manipulation (the same may be said of preacher Eli Sunday). Plainview is a monster with a mustache and you approach at your own risk. It is a great performance enhanced by a jarring score from Jonny Greenwood. Blood is Paul Thomas Anderson’s most ambitious film by far.
Do we have enough to choose between a pair of memorable monsters in long pants? Yes.
Gangs of New York plays to Martin Scorsese’s love of vivid characterizations and big stories that sweep across the generations. It is one of his best. This is strong stuff and Bill the Butcher is so damn bloody you’re tempted to look away.
If you do, you’ll be staring into the disturbing face of Daniel Plainview. His proportions seem human-scale, but the depth of his resentments and greed go well beyond that. As Blood vividly shows, anyone who doubts that learns otherwise to their eternal regret. There Will Be Blood is a fine movie made even better by the power of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.
Bill the Butcher keeps his place in the Villains House, but now he shares it with Daniel Plainview from our winner, “There Will Be Blood.”